- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Act Like You Haven’t Been There Before

Brandon Nimmo [1] is more than just happy to be here, but make no mistake: he’s happy to be here. Look at the smile that accompanied him around the bases after he bopped the first home run of his career, the one that elevated the Mets to a 7-1 lead en route to a soggy 10-2 drubbing [2] of the presumed invincible Cubs Friday night. That’s a happy person.

I’d include a picture [3], but I assume Nimmo’s grin is still visible everywhere there is sky. It lit up the atmosphere at Citi Field, it brightened the broadcast wherever you were watching or listening, it took over the league lead in OPS+ — Outstanding Player Smile.

The plus is for how contagious Nimmo’s enthusiasm is to the rest of us. That’s a commodity not to be curbed.

Like every sentient Mets fan who wished to hide his eyes in the wake of the sweep the Mets suffered in Washington on the heels of however many other indignities were inflicted upon our perpetually lost and forlorn scout troop across May and June, I wasn’t looking forward to playing the Cubs. The Cubs, according to advanced metrics [4], have already won the 2016 World Series thrice over. At least they did before being swept by St. Louis and losing three of four to Miami recently. Speed bump aside, they’re still prohibitive frontrunners in their division and a reasonable bet to storm from ahead into the postseason.

The Mets, meanwhile, were being the Mets, and not in the lovable or miraculous sense. No need to hash out the actual numbers heading into the Thursday opener of their four-game series versus Chicago. Suffice it to say it felt like they hadn’t scored in two months, and the truthiness of that feeling was close enough to reality that it didn’t require statistical corroboration.

Then Yoenis Cespedes [5] sleeved a Promenade Box seat his own shade of neon (now for the Mets to do the same [6]). It was a solo home run, the one kind of run the Mets seem capable of generating, except it reached the heretofore unreachable tier, which certainly got and inverted your pessimistic attention. My first thought, after “WOW!” was, “I’m gonna have to update my list.” I keep all kinds of lists, but the one I was thinking of was my “best performance in a Met loss [7]” list, an occasionally revisited file reflecting superb offensive and/or defensive outings that you can’t completely enjoy. The last one was Lucas Duda [8]’s three home runs the night the Mets bowed to the Padres and Carlos Gomez [9] wasn’t traded.

When Cespedes bombed the de facto Upper Deck on Thursday [10], it was 3-1 Cubs in the sixth. At last check, two-run deficits with three innings to go lie in the realm of we-can-overcome. But not for the 2016 Mets, according to anybody watching the 2016 Mets during too much of 2016. What a shame, I was sure.

Then along came Nimmo, driving in the Mets’ second run on a single up the middle after nine pitches that included three balls, three fouls and no intention of going down until he recorded his first RBI; and scoring the Mets’ fourth run when Neil Walker [11]’s chopper flummoxed Javier Baez [12] enough so that the Cubs suddenly resembled the Mets against the Royals from last fall when the Mets, and not the Cubs, went to the World Series. By that analogy, the Mets were the relentless come-from-behind killers who were not to be denied, a role we hadn’t seen them filling much this year.

For one night going on two, the head that wears the crown wasn’t so heavy (despite a pretty heavy press briefing from our sadly sidelined Captain [13] in the afternoon). The Mets are defending National League champions, which is a swell thing to be, though sometimes their preceding season’s success haunts the current proceedings. If it doesn’t get in the players’ heads, it’s certainly in ours. The Mets, for the first time since Fernando Martinez [14] was considered a growth stock, entered a campaign with expectations they’d prevail. They’ve won some, but they’ve lost almost as many overall, and the ratio’s been decidedly out of whack since the end of April. At the very least, the Mets were supposed to compete with the Nationals when this week began. When they didn’t and they came home to face the Cubs, they were supposed to cooperatively present their hind quarters for a ritual whoopin’. I believe the Stonecutters refer to this sacred rite as the Paddling of the Swollen Ass…with Paddles [15].

I’m not a Bark in the Park kind of fellow, but maybe there’s something to the Mets as underdogs. The big bad Cubbies were nipped Thursday and then torn to shreds Friday. Boy, did they have it ruff! In the second, Loney homered. Cabrera homered. Then it rained. Then it dried. Then Loney doubled in two more. With the Mets up 4-1 in the fourth, it became Nimmo’s time to shine, though that seems to be a 24-hour preoccupation based on his demeanor.

When Nimmo was growing up in Wyoming, his state was represented in the U.S. Senate by a politician named Malcolm Wallop [16]. I do believe Brandon was paying a form of homage to the late legislator when he drove a Jason Hammel [17] pitch into the Cub bullpen in the fourth, because that, as the voters from Casper to Cody to Cheyenne used to say on Election Day, was some kind of wallop.

Whoever Nimmo was demonstrating for on the floor of Citi Field, he was doing it with vigor. I’ve seen a few sluggers trot around the bases looking less than constipated after their wallops, but not many. Noted author Lenny Dykstra [18] springs to mind as having made facial contortions for eternity when he wrecked Dave Smith [19] to win NLCS Game Three in 1986. Todd Pratt [20] was an exploding volcano of emotion immediately after discerning Steve Finley [21]’s vertical leap was no match for his NLDS-ending blast in 1999. But those were homers hit in the October cauldron. This was a rookie extending a lead between rain delays. It was his first, for sure, but what do they drill into these kids’ heads from the time they’re old enough to conceal their elation? “Act like you’ve been there before.”

Our Brandon is too innocent, too unspoiled, too damn happy to abide by the code. He just hit a home run in a major league game in front of fans who weren’t blasé about it, so why should he pretend it wasn’t the highlight of his 23-year-old life? He didn’t just smile for 360 feet after socking a ball 442 feet, he took a 1986-style curtain call with the kind of gusto on which Joseph Schlitz once built a brewing empire [22]. Nimmo really hadn’t been there before, so he might as well take in all the sights a first-time visitor to the peak of his profession has to offer. And after three months of grumbling about our defending league champions succumbing to reflexive year-after malaise (somebody keeps telling me my next book should be titled Eighty-Seven Again), it was kind of sweet to cheer from the perspective of appreciation for something that we didn’t see coming.

There was a superb grab embedded in Nimmo’s portfolio as well, a little diving number in right to rob hapless Hammel of helping his own cause in the top of the fifth. It was the putout that assured posterity that this evening, no matter how wet, officially occurred. Belting a first home run and combining it with a highlight-reel catch — as if adding on the fries and drink for value — called to mind a similar breakout performance from 34 years before. The rookie that Queens night was Gary Rajsich [23], a right fielder whose minor league journey differed from No. 1 pick Nimmo’s, even if his initial destiny wound up in a similar place.

If you’re old enough and retentive enough, you might see the name Gary Rajsich and be transported back to the summer of 1981, when every day was worse than any day that the Mets lose because there was no game today [24]. The baseball strike choked the fun out of the best time of year. All we had left to root on, from a distance, was an unfamiliar name that was hard to spell.

Not that Gary Rajsich wasn’t deserving of raves for his powerful good season at Tidewater, but chances are few would have noticed had the major leagues not been on strike and the minor leagues not been on cable. Rajsich and the Tides were a featured attraction when ESPN, USA and WTBS sought to fill the baseball gap with Triple-A contests. Gary chose the moment the cameras found him to make his star turn. By early July, the mystery outfielder had gained a degree of fame for leading not just the International League but, as one wire-service story put it, “everybody else — in the majors, the minors and even the Little Leagues, as far as can be determined” in home runs. He had 22 homers, leading “the entire Western Hemisphere,” before Independence Day.

“It’s staggering,” the 26-year-old overnight sensation who had never tasted a sip of big league coffee in six professional seasons confessed. “I’ve gone from being an unknown player to being a better known one in only a few weeks.” With notices glowing all over the continent, the former Astro farmhand loomed as a lock to be called up by the Mets once the strike was over.

Except by then, Rajsich had fractured a wrist and was done for 1981, with his 24 home runs and brief spurt of celebrity placed on the shelf for the rest of the summer. But come 1982, Gary earned a place on the Mets and didn’t really do very much. Assigned only spot duty in half of the Mets’ first 34 games, Rajsich was hitting a paltry .189 and had yet to drive in a single run.

That was about to change on a Tuesday night at Shea, as Gary Rajsich was ready to enjoy the inning for which he had waited his entire life.

It was the top of the fifth, with the Mets having just taken a 3-1 lead on Cincinnati in the fourth. Randy Jones [25] retired the first two Reds he faced before ex-Met Alex Treviño sent a sinking liner toward the right field line that was earmarked for extra bases until, out of nowhere (or a half-dozen years in the minors) came racing one Gary Rajsich. Making a move reminiscent of Ron Swoboda [26] against Brooks Robinson [27] in 1969, Rajsich went all out, diving for and coming up with Treviño’s ball for the third out of the inning.

“When he first hit it,” the humble rookie said, “I didn’t think I could catch it, but the wind held it up just high enough for me.”

The fifth inning had more in store for Rajsich in its bottom half. With two on and the Mets now leading 4-1, Gary did to Bruce Berenyi [28] what he had done to so many Triple-A pitchers the year before. He got hold of a pitch and sent it deep until it disappeared over the 371 mark in right-center to put the Mets up, 7-1…the same score Nimmo’s shot resulted in.

After the 7-4 win went final, Rajsich breathed the sigh of relief he’d been waiting to exhale through the season’s first six weeks. “I really feel much better,” Gary said. “I really feel like I belong now. Everything should be real smooth. I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders. I’ll never forget this one.”

Gary Rajsich would hit plenty more home runs in the seasons ahead, but alas, most of them were in the minors, where his abilities topped out. Revealing himself the quintessential Quadruple-A ballplayer, Gary had only two more major league homers in him. He’d hit 28 for Tidewater in 1983 and 29 for St. Louis’s Louisville club in 1984. By 1986, he was a member of the Chunichi Dragons of the Japan Central League, where he’d stay for three seasons.

His failure to follow up on that one great inning in 1982 wasn’t necessarily the end of his big league career, though. By 2012, after building a sterling reputation within the industry, he was serving as director of scouting for the Baltimore Orioles. One of his former colleagues praised him for “his ability to connect to all kinds of different people”.

Just not enough of them had been major league pitchers.

Yet there’ll always be The Gary Rajsich Game [29], and now we know there will be at least one The Brandon Nimmo Game, hopefully the first of many to come. Once Nimmo’s maiden signature affair was certified official, Cespedes signaled that he is perhaps easing into another of his superhero grooves and delivered another baseball to the citizens of a far-off seating section. Cabrera chipped in with another home run, a second paddling from the swell Asdrubal (increasing the Met home run total to five, a Citi Field record for a single game). And, almost as a footnote but really quite critically, Jacob deGrom [30] threw his best ball of the year, earning a win after enduring the first weather-driven interruption of play [31], going five, striking out seven and giving up nothing of substance besides a Kris Bryant [32] home run that traveled far, but alone.

There was eventually more rain, some stellar bullpen work — welcome to New York, Seth Lugo [33] — and a second consecutive victory over the Cubs, for whom throwing their gloves on the field surprisingly doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Until further notice, the road to the World Series for any and all National League contenders still runs through Flushing.

How’s that for turning a frown upside down?

Ah, a long way to go and all the Mets have done lately is win two consecutive exhilarating games. Gotta stay humble, stay hungry. Heed the words of Survivor and adopt the eye of the tiger [34] (wearing the compression sleeve of the ex-Tiger is optional). But maybe take a cue from Wet Willie and, like Brandon Nimmo, keep on smilin’ [35]. After a pair games like these, it should be easy to do.

Thanks to Pete McCarthy and the Sports Zone on Mets flagship WOR 710 [36] for having me on during Friday’s final rain delay to talk Amazin’ Again [37], my book on 2015, the season our lack of expectations paid off brilliantly. Get yourself a signed copy here [38].